When I first saw Jake Gyllenhaal in the underrated drama October Sky, I knew right way he’d be an actor to watch. His ability to capture so many emotions at any one time without reveling in any of them showcased subtle maturity and constant wonderment that has carried over into a varying degree of genres, from science fiction and disaster to heartbreaking drama and popcorn blockbusters. Lately, Gyllenhaal has turned his focus to darker, more complex characters that usually have a slight moral ambiguity as they struggle with their inner demons — the type of character that you probably wouldn’t want to hang out with on a daily basis. He continues this anti-hero psychosis as the lead in the new thriller, Nightcrawler, with an amalgamation of everything he’s done in the past trying to compete for his attention.
To be blunt, Louis Bloom, the explosive young man at the heart of the film, is a sociopath. Every time writer/director Dan Gilroy lingers on Louis’s eyes, you can see the gears spinning, making you wonder what the heck is going through the man’s mind as he tries to keep his temper in check, because if we ever did see him explode (a short burst of which is shown as he destroys a medicine cabinet), the consequences would be disastrous, which only adds to Gyllenhaal’s richly layered performance. Louis sees himself as a charismatic, charming young man who has the integrity and the will to do what’s necessary to climb the ladder of success. At the same time, he has an extremely hard time relating to the world around him — a junkyard dog kept from protecting his domain by the short leash of societal conformity. Persistence is his biggest weapon, but that can only get him so far, so when the gatekeepers of his financial success (aka, everyone that says no to him, or gets in his way) suppress his ability to achieve his self-proclaimed true potential, he becomes nothing less than passive-aggressive, trying very hard to be normal, even if it often clashes with his internal desires.
That all changes when he witnesses a team of crime journalists (also known as nightcrawlers) who capture the rescue of a woman from a burning vehicle and then sell the footage to the news organization willing to pay the most for their exclusive shots. Bloom has made money thus far as a petty thief, so stealing footage of crimes, death and other such disasters seems like a perfect fit to entertain his psyche while making the money he deserves. So he buys a cheap camera and a police scanner and hunts for the next big story. His first few tries are horribly executed, as he doesn’t understand how to be discreet, but the more he films (and the more he learns, through physically filming, as well as Internet research), the more he becomes obsessed with becoming the best — and only — nightcrawler in Los Angeles.
Louis’s compulsion to build on this reputation is fueled by Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the managing director of a local news station hungry for sensational footage to help grab the attention of viewers and boost the ratings for a higher share of the market (and renew her contract with the station). When he shows up with some top-caliber footage, she doesn’t hesitate to purchase it, driving him to continually search for bigger, more sensational stories, even if that means going beyond the ethical boundaries of journalism to get the perfect shot (by deliberately altering crime scenes) or withholding evidence that he can use to manipulate a story of his choosing. He goes from capturing the news to manufacturing it, and Nina buys into it hook, line and sinker.
Russo does a great job matching Gyllenhaal’s psychotic rhythm beat-for-beat, and she’s not the only one. Bill Paxton is sadistically hammy as a rival nightcrawler in yet another spot-on supporting role this year (after Edge of Tomorrow and Million Dollar Arm), and Riz Ahmed gives a nuanced performance as Louis’s unwitting employee, a character that balances Gyllenhaal’s confidence by being his direct opposite — a timid, insecure mess who allows himself to be used and manipulated into doing things he otherwise might not have done because he’s unwilling to stand up for his own set of morals in fear of losing his job security.
It turns out, though, that the performances rise far above the actual story. The plot at times limits Gyllenhaal by not allowing him to navigate a more complex story and inhibits the growth of other story lines that on the surface were ripe for some excellent confrontational moments. This includes the conflict between Louis and the station manager (Kevin Rahm), who believes the partnership between Louis and Nina have compromised the integrity of the station, as well as the investigation into some of Louis’s footage that are nearly watered down to the point that the whole thing is nearly pointless. What they do effectively, though, is highlight Louis’s ability to manipulate society to fit his own agenda when he absolutely needs to, no matter how big or small the opposition may be.
There are also a few editing choices and montages that break the rhythm of the film for no other purpose but to shorten it, but because Gyllenhaal is allowed to build his own world with such a mesmerizing performance, Nightcrawler grabs hold of you from the very first moment we meet Louis and keeps you mesmerized to the final frame.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Big Hero Six and Interstellar. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.